While there are an increasingly large number of Pagan artists and musicians performing and releasing albums today, works that are consistently excellent and engaging, that transcend the preconceived notions of what “Pagan music” is, are still frustratingly rare. When I was just beginning the journey towards what would become A Darker Shade of Pagan, one of the few bands that really stood out for me were Pandemonaeon. They had just released their debut self-titled album in 2001, and I remember being thrilled at the sound of songs like “Black Snake”, which merged a post-Dead Can Dance aesthetic with a slinky goth-rock atmosphere. Better still, at least from my perspective at the time, they were openly Pagan. As to why that particularly thrilled me, you’ll have to remember that there wasn’t a whole lot of sonic diversity in the music marketed to Pagans back then. Folk (and filk) singing Pagan troubadours and trobairitz still dominated the scene, with only an occasional Inkubus Sukkubus to liven things up.
Shortly after their promising debut, Pandemonaeon seemed to disappear. There was a live album in 2003, but after that the band went into a long hibernation, with lead singer Sharon Knight going on to release a second solo album, and collaborate with T. Thorn Coyle on two well-received albums of Pagan chants. In the interim, the music industry, and the boundaries of what is “Pagan” music have changed, sometimes radically. In this climate, Pandemonaeon finally returns this month with their second album “Dangerous Beauty”, sporting a more assured, powerful, and at times metal-tinged sound. It marks not so much a come-back for the band as it does a whole new beginning. Not only is “Dangerous Beauty” a great “Pagan” album, it’s a great album period. I was lucky enough to recently interview Sharon Knight about Pandemonaeon, their new album, being a Pagan musician, and making it as a musician in today’s world.
Winter & Sharon of Pandemonaeon
You were working as a musician, and had released a solo album, “Incantation”, before the first Pandemonaeon album came out in 2001. Up to that point your sound was more rooted in Celtic Folk, what made you decide to explore the somewhat darker sonic territory of this project?
Incantation came about as a direct expression of my introduction to Paganism, and I was very interested in exploring my Celtic roots at that time. By the time Winter and I recorded the first Pandemonaeon album I had been captivated by belly dance and was listening to a lot of Middle Eastern music. We also had fallen in love with Dead Can Dance’s music and found ourselves musing on how powerful it would be to mix that type of dark ethereal sound with hard rock. The Underworld has always been a rich source of inspiration for us, so it was inevitable that our music would find a darker expression.
Could you quickly explain the name? Why “Pan” “Demon” “Aeon”? Also, how did the members for the band come together? Was it an organic process, or was there a certain drive to form a band?
Pandemonaeon is a term coined by Chaos magician Peter Carroll. He describes the Pandemonaeon as a new aeon of magickal thinking, and Chaos magic itself offers up the idea that it isn’t our beliefs that are true, but the act of believing that makes magic work. Although I don’t see this as the whole picture, this was a powerful idea to us at the time of choosing a band name. We were happy to lend our art to a vision of a world wherein magick users devote their practices to consciously shaping their lives rather than falling into dogmatic habits. 10 years later this still rings true enough that the name feels honest.
There was definitely a drive to form a band, and it hasn’t been a particularly organic process. We’ve gone through a lot of band members looking for the right people! I am extremely happy with our current lineup, however.
It’s been no big secret that you’re a Pagan, and you’ve produced ritual chants and songs with T. Thorn Coyle, a good friend of yours. Do you feel like most of your fans are Pagans? How do you feel about the Pagan label when it comes to the music you make and the albums you release?
It does seem that most, if not all, of our fans are Pagans. That is certainly the community in which we are best known. As far as the Pagan label, I have mixed feelings about it. I am all for writing some music that is specifically Pagan, such as the chant CDs with Thorn. I am very proud to be contributing to the building of our Pagan culture via music. It is a movement that I believe in as being quite relevant to the times we are living in. However, since Paganism is known as a religious movement, I sometimes feel concerned that the Pagan label will alienate some listeners who might enjoy the music for what it is but who don’t identify as Pagan themselves. I feel that music transcends religion, and it would be a shame for our music to get pigeon holed as “religious music”. It is music written by Pagans, but it is for anyone who has ever been moved by dark myth and legend.
Let’s talk a bit about Pandemonaeon’s sound. What were the big influences? You cite Dead Can Dance and a “Loreena McKennitt in the underworld” aesthetic, but there’s also obvious hard rock and metal influences in the work. How would you describe it?
As far as influences, definitely Dead Can Dance, since Pandemonaeon arose from imagining how DCD’s music would sound infused with hard rock. I don’t know that I’d say Loreena McKennitt was an influence so much as we recognized her as a kindred spirit when we heard her. Her melodic sense and song structure is familiar, something I imagine comes with the discipline of studying traditional Celtic music. And her tendency to mix other world music influences and rock throughout her songs is a theme that resonates with us as well. We’ve been influenced by Middle Eastern, Scandinavian, and Celtic folk music as well as classic and modern rock and more recently, folk metal and some of the more beautiful epic metal such as Nightwish.
It’s a bit of a cliché, but we are one of those bands who have a hard time describing our music within recognizable genres. You described our sound quite well the other day when you referred to it as “Dark tribal fusion with powerful vocals and metal accents”.
We’ve been describing our music as “Gothic Tribal Folk Metal” or just “Folk Metal”. We don’t sound like any other folk metal band I have heard, but since we combine folk music themes with hard rock/metal guitar and “beauty and the beast” vocals we may be able to get away with it. We use the word Gothic due to the similarities with Dead Can Dance, who were embraced by the Goth community, and also the dark ethereal spirituality of the music invokes what I think of as a Goth aesthetic. I think of myself as a Goth in the dark spiritual sense but not in the 80’s synth-pop sense. So am I a true Goth? I’m sure there’d be those who say no. But, as a band you are expected to describe your music somehow so for now our genre is Gothic Tribal Folk Metal.
The other half of Pandemonaeon would be your partner Winter. How did the two of you meet and come to collaborate?
We met at Harbin Hot Springs at the Ancient Ways Festival, and immediately knew we had a destiny together. That sounds cliché too I suppose, but it’s true. Still feels true almost 20 years later.
It’s been nearly a decade between albums. How did your newly released follow-up “Dangerous Beauty” come about? Also, perhaps you could comment on how you perceive the changes in the music industry between the two releases. Is putting out “Dangerous Beauty” a very difference experience for you than releasing the debut?
We got burned out on Pandemonaeon for a while and felt the need to put some distance between us and some disappointments associated with the project. It’s interesting you mention the changes in the music industry between Dangerous Beauty and our debut, as the radical changes in the music industry are a big part of why we put things on hold. Within a year of forming the band we were offered a recording contract with Warner Brothers, at the time the Holy Grail for any musician. It fizzled out to nothing as the music industry became unstable, and with all the fear about pirating, etc. we just weren’t sure what our next steps should be. There wasn’t yet the infrastructure for releasing indie music online as there is now with Bandcamp, Nimbit, indie access to iTunes, etc.
But now this infrastructure does exist, and indies are doing rather well without record labels, which is very exciting for us. Also the Gothic Tribal Fusion belly dance movement, the Folk Metal movement, and the Pagan movement all made it seem like the climate may be right for Pandemonaeon. Ultimately though, Dangerous Beauty came about because this music is such a core part of our souls that turning it off left us feeling depressed and shut down much of the time. The sonic landscapes we traverse as part of this project give us a sense of destiny, and I think anytime the feeling of destiny presents itself to you, it is worth following. As the saying goes, “If you wonder what you can do to change the world, do what makes you feel alive, for what the world needs most are people who are alive”. Pandemonaeon makes us feel alive.
How would you contrast your sound on your debut with “Dangerous Beauty”? How do you feel Pandemonaeon as an entity has grown or changed?
We are definitely much more influenced by metal now! And I think our sense of identity is stronger. One would hope so after 10 years!
Are you planning to tour with the new album? What’s it like playing live with a band as opposed to a solo artist?
I would love to tour with this project. Unfortunately, to realize this vision requires 7 people, and taking 7 people on the road can be difficult. Still, we plan to play live as far and wide as circumstances will allow. I love solo gigs for their intimacy, but I love playing with a full band for the sheer epicness of sound you can get, for the camaraderie of working with a group to create something that is greater than the sum of its parts.
Finally, what are your plans for the future? Will there be more Pandemonaeon in years to come? What about in your solo career?
There will definitely be more Pandemonaeon. It’s too much a part of who we are. We have a music video in the planning stage; also finding our way onto some tours with the funding to bring the whole band along is a high priority for us. I’ll keep putting out solo albums as well, as I enjoy both, and my solo project is easy and cost effective to tour with.
You can purchase a physical copy of “Dangerous Beauty” via the band’s web site. You can also download it, along with the rest of their catalog, from their Bandcamp.com site. For the latest Pandemonaeon news, check out their Facebook page.